Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
I heard a story about a high school baseball team in which one of the players underwent chemotherapy that caused him to lose all his hair. In solidarity with him, his entire team, including the coaches, shaved their heads. This isn’t an unusual event. Solidarity with one person or with a group of persons is often expressed by emulating something of that person. Several weeks ago a young African American boy, Trayvon Martin, was walking through a white, gated community in central Florida. He was followed by an older man in a truck who was carrying a gun while doing a self-appointed “neighborhood watch”. He reported what he thought was the boy’s suspicious behavior by calling 911. The 911operator told the man to stop following the boy. Something then happened between the boy and the man and so the man shot and killed the boy. The boy was carrying a bag of candy and a can of iced tea. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. The man has not been arrested since, so far at least, it appears he is protected by what is called a “stand your ground” law, which allows an individual to use deadly force if feeling threatened in any way. Twenty-three other states, including New Hampshire, have some version of this same law, which is sometimes called the “make my day” law, or the “shoot first, ask later” law. There are lots of things wrong with the law, beginning with the presumption that carrying a handgun around with you is a perfectly normal and appropriate thing. But, back to the matter of solidarity. Thousands of people are now intentionally wearing hooded sweatshirts, many with the hood pulled far forward. It is a simple act of solidarity with Trayvon Martin in part to show that clothing, by itself, ought not influence whether someone else feels threatened. Neither should the color of one’s skin, of course, or walking where you shouldn’t be walking, like through a white neighborhood.
There are many aspects to this case in Florida that are deeply disturbing, and resting over it all is the heavy, blood-soaked blanket of racism. A beautifully written piece by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and head of the Children’s Defense Fund, tells about “the talk” parents of brown-skinned sons all have at one time or another with their sons. Usually the parental talk is about responsible behavior concerning drinking, or sexual activity. Every parent knows about those “talks”. But the talk with brown boys is about how to appear less threatening in public, how to walk, what to do when stopped by the police for driving while black. The talk often includes something about not wearing dark, hooded sweatshirts, especially at night, especially when in a white section of town.
There is a layer of danger surrounding dark-skinned people in this country that I will never experience. There is a layer of danger surrounding people of middle-eastern descent. There is a layer of danger surrounding Jews, Muslims, Hindus and many other religions. There is a layer of danger surrounding lesbians and gay men and transgendered persons. There is a layer of danger surrounding women. It’s just plain dangerous to be anything other than a white, heterosexual, Christian, male in our nation. Those of you old enough to remember the culture of our nation during and following World War II can attest to the fact that it was dangerous during those days to be a Japanese American, while it was not dangerous to be a German American. It isn’t hard to see that that disparity was because of race. So, if you are a white, heterosexual, Christian man, you will have a more difficult time than the rest of us fully understanding what I am talking about. You’ll have a harder time understanding the the underlying themes of this story from Jeremiah. It’s not your fault. But the experience of trying to “pass” is not your experience. The practice of walking in such a way so as to not draw attention to yourself is not your experience. The insecurity and uneasiness that crawls up the spine when you find yourself in a room full of other white, heterosexual, Christian males is not your experience. So, as I’ve said, that isn’tyour fault, but you will have to work harder than the rest of us to hear, really hear the words of Jeremiah, or the teachings of Jesus, or the compassion of God. The world pretty much thinks of you as having been created in the image of God. You may not think about that so often but believe me, those of us who know that WE were NOT created in the image of God think of it on a regular basis.
Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, once said in a speech he gave at Dartmouth, that when you’re a white, heterosexual, Christian male, you don’t think very often about that identity. You don’t think about being white. You aren’t aware of being physically stronger as a man, than most women. You don’t think about what it means to be straight. But, if you’re not white, you think about that a lot. If you’re a woman, you’re aware of the doors that have been closed to you because of your gender and you know how easily you can be physically overpowered by a man. If you’re gay, you know what it means to “straighten up”. In other words, when you are privileged by virtue of something you can’t help, like gender or skin color or sexual orientation, you just take that for granted. People who are within the circle of privilege are not all that aware of how they got there or what it means to not be there. If you’re not in the circle of privilege, you know exactly why you’re not there and you know exactly what it would take to get there, and almost always it isn’t anything you can do anything about. So you respond in a variety of ways, which include rage, fear, indifference, over-achieving, self-isolation, assimilation, and any number of other protective attitudes.
Jeremiah wrote to his people who were living in exile, which means, in essence, they were a minority people living in a foreign, majority culture. They were cut off from home, strangers in Babylon, having been conquered by the Babylonian army. They weren’t in an internment camp, but they knew that wherever they went, the members of the majority of Babylonian citizens knew who they were. They wanted to go home, back to the land where they were safe. The memories of home were strong – the rituals of a religion they were no longer allowed to practice, the greetings they gave one another in the mornings no longer tolerated, fears for those from whom they were forcefully separated racing through their minds. Some of them tried to assimilate and pretend they were glad to be in this new place, you know, get along – not draw any attention to themselves, slide below the radar, act, dress, talk like the people they were walking among. Some of them fought viciously and constantly and were viciously and constantly jailed or even executed. They believed God had abandoned them. They thought they had broken their covenant with God and that this was their punishment. God had freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and had made a promise to them, that they would always be God’s beloved, never again enslaved, never again alone. They must have done something terrible – that was why they lost their homeland. That was the only reason they could think of as to why they were being treated so badly, why they were being disproportionately arrested, disproportionately despised, disproportionately singled out.
Jeremiah, God’s prophet to the exiled people, never lost faith in what God would do. Jeremiah wrote these words as if God were speaking them: “This is the covenant I will make – I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The covenant would no longer be an external thing but an internal matter of the heart. God’s covenant would have nothing to do with being anything but a person with a beating heart. And in that heart, God’s will, God’s love, God’s hopes and dreams for all humanity lies.
This is a story about covenant, about God’s covenant and how it is written on our hearts, not on tablets, the walls of the courthouse or even within legislation, passed, defeated, vetoed or otherwise in process. It is an eternal claim on me that has nothing to do with my gender or skin color, or sexual orientation. That’s what makes this story so important. It’s on our hearts.
I’ve been feeling a free-floating anger for these past weeks – anger that is difficult to pinpoint. I feel it when I read about Trayvon Martin, or when I remember “the talk” I had to have with my own brown-skinned boy. I remember it when I know my words have been dismissed because I’m a woman. I feel it when I see all kinds of white people wearing hooded sweatshirts in solidarity with Trayvon Martin as if that raises awareness about the vile laws that protect his killer. I feel it when I think how mean-spirited opponents to marriage equality speak about lesbians and gays. I feel it when I see people get mileage from inappropriate behaviors. It’s an anger that gets in my way when I’m trying to just live the best way I can. But more importantly, it’s an anger that gets in God’s way, because it closes my heart for a while. Thank God for Jeremiah reminding me that God’s covenant is eternal. It’s written on my heart. It has nothing to do with the ways of the privileged. And it isn’t about wearing a hoodie whether it’s in solidarity with one who was murdered or blamed as the reason he was murdered.
We are soon entering Holy Week. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we think about Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem, the sophisticated and dangerous city. I’m going to say, to myself, every time I read the name Jerusalem over the next few weeks, Sanford, Florida, the place where Trayvon was killed. I’m going to name that city, and one or two other places where I’ve felt personally threatened recently. And then I’m going to try to read my own heart, see if God’s eternal covenant is still written there. I believe, I really do, that that will be the best act of solidarity I can perform for the sake of those who are God’s beloved. Amen.